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Welcome to the website of Stephen J Sweeney, science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer. Here, you can
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(Note: this isn't a post about self-publishing vs traditional publishing: it's merely a post based on my own experiences)
(Note 2: reading this back, it feels like a post about writing and publishing in general, too. Wasn't meant to be, but hopefully there are some interesting bits and pieces)
To date, I have self-published eight novel-length books (each ranging from 40,000 to 165,000 words). My first book, THE HONOUR OF THE KNIGHTS (now subtitled as 'First Edition'), was released initially as a paperback in 2009. It sold rather poorly (as might be expected of a 320 page paperback retailing at £9.99, with no discounts) but I didn't give up, and between 2010 and 2012 I produced the trilogy as ebooks, taking advantage of the instant availability and opportunity to price the novels in such a way as to encourage readers into taking a chance on an unknown author.
The reason I chose to self-publish the novels wasn't because I didn't want to work with agents and publishers (because I did), but due to the response to the trilogy. The BFTSS trilogy was said to be too much like the Wing Commander and X-Wings novels which apparently hadn't sold very well. As such, my trilogy was unlikely to be picked up for commercial publication. This was rather disappointing to hear, as this was a story I had wanted to write for a long time, and had planned to put together a dedicated website (www.battleforthesolarsystem.com) and other bits and piece (an pop quiz app and perhaps even a game) to support and promote it.
Luckily, I was able to produce the trilogy myself. I'm happy to say that it found an audience and was well received, selling in numbers I'm sure a publisher would actually have been more than happy with.
I've learned a few things about self-publishing in the last five years or so that I thought some might find useful (or maybe just interesting to read about - warning: this news post contains honesty, and possibly some typos..!)
It's a lot of fun!
With self-publishing, you're in control of every aspect of the process, giving you the chance to do whatever you please. It gives you the chance to experiment, and set your own expectations.
As well as writing the story, I particularly enjoyed creating the cover art for the novels. For the BATTLE FOR THE SOLAR SYSTEM trilogy, I read a lot of online tutorials about how to create a space scene, along with planets, nebulas and whatnot. I enjoyed dabbling with the layer and filters in GIMP to achieve the effect I was after, as well as creating the planets themselves. The cover for THE ATTRIBUTE OF THE STRONG is by far my favourite of the trilogy. For the other covers, such as FIRMWARE and H1NZ, I scoured the Creative Commons section of Flickr looking for a photograph that I could use as a basis. I then played with layers, filters, and a load of other things to get the cover looking the way I liked.
Sounds fun, eh? But ...
It's also a lot of hard work!
So, you've finished writing your book. 120,000 words. That's amazing and you should feel proud of yourself. And once you've completed your rewrites, you'll definitely deserve a nice cold one and a slap on the back.
However, you've now got even more work to do. You'll need to have the book edited, meaning finding yourself a reliable editor, and then working through those edits and making suggested changes (a process something that writers with agents and publishers will be familiar with). And once you've done that, you'll need to get your formatting right before you upload your book to Amazon and/or Smashwords. Font sizes will have to be set correctly, and you'll need to ensure that your indentation and paragraph breaks are applied in the right way. A reader will be put off if they see plenty of space between each paragraph and indentation covering half the page. Random bolds, italics and centring won't look very good, either.
On top of that, you'll need to get yourself a decent, attractive, professional-looking cover, something, again, that would be handled by your publisher. Despite what I said earlier, while fun to do, creating a cover yourself takes time. On and off it would take me around a month or so to get my covers the way I wanted them, often throwing away a design I had been working on when I realised it didn't work.
As a writer with an agent and publishing house behind you, all that would be needed would be to simply turn in the completed manuscript (and do a few other little jobs, such as page proofing). As you are publishing the book yourself, you'll be taking on all the work, including all the financing.
Which means ...
It can cost a lot of money
Publishing a book isn't cheap. Unless you have friends who are professional editors and designers and will to working for peanuts (or even do it for free), then you're going to end up sinking a few hundred pounds into your work. This is what I believe puts many off getting their book edited: they see the expense of it as something that they might never get back, if the book fails to sell in the kind of volume to recoup the money (and make something back for yourself). Hey, guess what? That's the same dilemma that publishing houses face..!
Even so, you should have your novel edited. This isn't just about fixing your spelling and grammar, this is also about fixing things such as continuity errors. As an example, it was pointed out to me in the edits for PROJECT STARFIGHTER that I had stated WEAPCO had six people on their most-wanted list, but the earlier an envoy drone had only ever listed five names. Another point was that it should be made clear that WEAPCO were interested in identical twins (as was my intention) and not just twins in general. For all the other tweaks and fixes made, the money was well spent.
The editing of my books cost between £100 and £1,000. Factor in the cost of cover design and you're looking at quite a bill. A good cover can set you back a few hundred. In all, that's a lot of dough. One way I cut down on my expenses was by creating the cover art myself. I have some graphical skills, so this made a lot of sense. I wouldn't do it the other way around, though, and I would advise that you never attempt to edit your own work. You simply can't, as you will miss many, many things. Find yourself a good editor. But just remember ...
Not all editors are created equal
I've hired about four different editors, all of varying quality. Actually, that's not quite true - three were mediocre, and one was amazing. The three that were mediocre were cheap, so I guess you get what you pay for. I ended up fixing a lot of their mistakes, and tidying up things they should have spotted themselves. In one case, the editor almost seemed to get bored 3/4 of the way through and made only minor tweaks to the remaining 25%. Either that, or they sent me the wrong file. I was so appalled by the result I didn't bother to ask.
The best editors, in my own experience, will be those who are involved in the genre. They are often hired by publishers themselves and will therefore be very professional. Check out writers' forums for referrals, as well as checking out the credentials of the editor themselves.
Just keep in mind that editors aren't miracle workers, though ...
Not all your work is guaranteed to be a hit
I'll be honest right away here: two of my books have performed significantly less well than I was expecting. Both THE RED ROAD (which is now 100% free) and H1NZ have met poor sales and a less than thrilling reception. THE RED ROAD I'm not too bothered about, to be honest; I had a lot of fun writing it, and did actually giggle often when I was reading over some of the scenes. It was a different book for me, one set in a boys' boarding school in the 90s. I wrote it because so many people told me they would love to read a book like that (rather than my sci-fi stuff). It seems that in reality readers weren't actually all that bothered in the end.
H1NZ was a lot more disappointing, however. With the BFTSS trilogy remaining popular, I hoped that a sci-fi horror (an alien pathogen arriving on Earth and mutating all organic matter) might prove equally so. The reception was quite the opposite, with most complaints being levelled at the violence and bleakness of the story (the book doesn't have a happy ending). As of right now, it's sold fewer than 100 copies, making it a part of the opt-repeated self-publishing sales expectations statistic. It sadly means that the sequel I had written will now never see the light of day (more on this later).
Oh well, they can't all be gems.
Community support remains equally important
A few of the writers that I follow on Twitter have decided to self-publish some of their earlier works, or tie-in novels to books they already have out with publishers. The support they received from the community was wonderful, with bloggers and some other influential people reviewing their work and tweeting about it. This only helps to make their work more visible, which, in the absence of such promotion that would otherwise come from a publisher, is an invaluable thing.
A good website is important, too!
Outside of the retailer listings, how can a reader discover you and your work? Perhaps it's me being nosey, but I tend to imagine that when a reader hears of a writer or a story they might be interested in, the first thing they will do is shove the author's name into Google and see what comes up. Finding a nicely presented up-to-date website with information about the author and the books they have written is sure to pique their interests. I often see people coming to my website using queries such as "stephen j sweeney author" and "honour of the knights stephen sweeney". Some others will come from Twitter, and others from articles that have been linked to me. I've endeavoured to make sure that when someone arrives at my website it's clear where they can find out about the books and (crucially) where they can go to buy them..!
Don't forget mobile, either! Recently, PROJECT STARFIGHTER was linked from BoingBoing and a significant number of visitors were coming to me using their smartphones. My website looked dreadful on a mobile, as it wasn't optimised at all. I'm sure that put many visitors off, having to pinch and zoom and rotate their phones so that they could read things. I know it'd put me off. I've since fixed it (I hope..!).
Not all e-retailers are equal
Something that shouldn't come as any surprise to those reading this is just how much power Amazon holds over the ebook market. No other retailer comes close to their numbers. In fact, the difference is rather shocking. When THE ATTRIBUTE OF THE STRONG was released, it went straight to the top of the iTunes sci-fi chart in the US and UK (as did PROJECT STARFIGHTER a couple of weeks ago). On the Amazon charts, the books each went into the top 2,000 (AOTS hit the top 500 in the UK).
Sounds like the numbers from iTunes would have rather spectacular, eh? Um ... no. In fact, despite being at the top of the iBooks sci-fi charts for close to a week both AOTS and PS sold fewer copies on iTunes than they did on Amazon in one day. In fact, the combined sales of ebooks from channels outside of Amazon are often eclipsed by those of The Everything Store.
Often when looking at this I wonder why I sell on the other channels at all. However, I remember that it's good to ...
Give your readers as much choice as possible
While Amazon might be shifting the most ebooks, I keep in mind that not everyone likes to shop there. Some readers like to consume books on their phones and tablets (iTunes / Google Play), while others will prefer eReaders but will boycott Amazon and use Kobo. When THE ATTRIBUTE OF THE STRONG came out, distribution to Sony's Readerstore (now closed) was lagging severely behind all the other retailers. After a few weeks, I was contacted by a frustrated fan who wanted to know when it was going to arrive there. I couldn't tell him, as I didn't know why Sony wasn't listing it. In the end, I pointed him to the ePubs on the trilogy's website and he bought the final chapter directly from there (as the ePubs were compatible with the Sony Reader). A number of other readers have done similar things. Had my books not been widely available, I would have potentially lost those sales.
(exception: right now, I'm experimenting with KDP's Select, using FIRMWARE, MALWARE, and H1NZ, to see how that affects sales. None of those books have sold copies outside of Amazon in the past three months, so I thought they would be good candidates. They won't be available for the 90 days of the experiment).
Paperbacks will net you less
I've been asked why I've never produced paperbacks of my novels. The simple truth is that print-on-demand is very expensive. A publisher can sell a 500 page paperback for £7.99. If a self-publisher does the same using print-on-demand, the price will be double. Don't think you'll be shifting too many of those. The only paperback I've ever produced was HOTK:FE, way back in 2009. It retailed at £9.99 a copy. No, it didn't sell very well at all. Best advice: don't bother..!
Hopefully you've found this helpful and/or eye-opening.
I've been tweaking the website a bit today, to make it look a little better when viewing on mobile devices (Android, iPhones, iPads). Everything should work fine, but please get in touch if you experience any issues.
Caution - this post contains spoilers for Project Starfighter! You may wish to avoid reading it until you have read the book!
As should be clear by now, Project Starfighter is the novelization of a video game that I created back in 2001. The game is a multi-directional shoot-em-up with an intricate plot. When it came to writing the book, I looked at the plot of the game and took from that what I could. I retained pretty much all of the characters, as well as some of the events, and expanded heavily on all other aspects. For those interested, I've listed below the differences between the game and the novel.
- While Chris' starfighter is a Firefly in both the book and the game, the ship is not sentient in the game and Athena does not feature.
- In the book, WEAPCO stands for Wade-Ellen Asset Protection Corporation. In the game, it is short for Weapons Corporation.
- Phoebe and Ursula appear in the game, though neither of them possess psionic abilities.
- The threat posed by Mal's Immortal League does not feature in the original video game, and neither Mal nor the League are mentioned at any time.
- Lance Skillman and Erik Overlook do not feature in the game.
- Krass Tyler is the only mercenary to appear in the game. Eve, Dar, Clayton, and Lorrie are never seen (and neither is the Wolf Pack).
- The video game opens with Chris fleeing a number of WEAPCO fighters, before choosing to turn and attack them. The opening scene of the book is of Chris standing on the outskirts of the city Tira, watching the remains of the defeated Resistance fleet falling from the sky.
- The Resistance to which Chris and Sid belonged does not feature in the game.
- The WEAPCO stealth fighter that Chris must destroy in the game is absent from the book.
- The Artful Dodger, used as home base by Chris and co. in the book, does not feature in the game. The game does not suggest what Chris and Sid do or where they hide out between missions.
- The Crucible, where Chris, Sid, and Phoebe go to meet Tyler in the DNA Lounge, does not feature in the game.
- There are no drones or war bots present in the game (though this is mostly because the game is a shoot 'em up and drones and bots are land-based).
- Most named vessels (Talons, Mirages, Cyclones, Duke of Wellington, Alchemist's Son) are unnamed in the game.
- Chris Bainfield never rescues any slaves in the book.
- In the book, the warship Chris must battle in Spirit is known as The Grand Vizier, a Star Killer-class frigate. In the game, the frigate is unnamed. Additionally, in the game the frigate is capable of collapsing a star and causing a supernova. In the book, the frigate, while powerful, is not actually capable of any such thing.
- In the game, Chris first encounters Kethlan after assaulting a WEAPCO mining operation. In the book, the encounter follows an attack on a WEAPCO shipyard. Both encounters end with Kethlan fleeing the battle, after Chris bests him in a dogfight.
- In the game, a brainwashed Ursula Lexx is rescued after her starfighter is disabled in combat by Sid Wilson. In the book, she is rescued by Chris, Sid, and Phoebe from an installation known as the Zetaman Facility.
- In the game, Chris destroys a Executive Transport shuttling high level WEAPCO personnel. In the book, Chris captures it and takes Erik Overlook prisoner.
- In the game, there is no mention of WEAPCO actually being a cover for a post-scarcity society known as the Eternal Engine.
Last night, I received back the edits for PROJECT STARFIGHTER. I've not had time to go over it fully just yet, but having received some pretty bad news yesterday, I was glad to see it pop up in my inbox.
The book is scheduled for publication on 5th July, so there is plenty of time for me to work through suggested updates, as well as make some tweaks that I thought were necessary (I'll detail these at a later stage, as it goes well into spoiler territory).
Only two months to go! Exciting!
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